Pilates: A Core Conditioning Program
If you want to work your body to the core, try Pilates (pi-LAH-teez). First developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s as a therapeutic regimen for soldiers, the Pilates method has been performed by dancers, athletes and movie stars, among others, to release tension while gaining muscle strength, joint flexibility and energy.
"Pilates is gentle on the body but offers amazing benefits, focusing as it does on the deep muscles responsible for your body's core strength and stability," says Carolan Brown, a Pilates teacher in London and author of The Pilates Program for Every Body: Easy Routines for Every Age. "The exercises require a mental focus that helps you develop a greater understanding of how your body works, and when you understand how your body works, you can make it work more efficiently."
Pilates benefits include:
Prevention of and relief from back pain and muscle tension
Increased muscle strength and joint flexibility
Improved mental focus and increased coordination
Better posture and balance
Firm, flat abs
Pilates is a conditioning program that strengthens the muscles used in everyday actions such as walking, sitting, twisting, bending and lifting.
The primary aim of Pilates is to improve posture by strengthening the stabilizing muscles of the torso.
"Though good posture may sound like a modest aim, your posture has a profound effect on your general physical fitness and well-being," says Ms. Brown. "Imbalances in the spine can lead to injuries and early aging."
Because Pilates movements are slow and controlled, similar to yoga in some ways, they can easily be done at home or in class on a mat. The deep breathing part of the program helps reduce stress and calms the mind and body.
Focusing on the core
The abdominal and back muscles are often collectively referred to as the body's core. Pilates exercises strengthen this core by developing pelvic stability and abdominal control.
"Exercise sessions are designed according to individual flexibility and strength limitations and can be done on a mat or with Pilates equipment," says Ms. Brown. "You don't need special clothing or shoes. Bare feet and comfortable clothes that let you move freely are best."
Most exercises -- there are hundreds to choose from -- involve bending, stretching and using your own body weight for resistance. (Pilates can also be done on a variety of machines.)
Pilates breathing exercise
This exercise links deep breathing with standing in a neutral position. It activates your core muscles as you learn to control breathing while maintaining good posture.
Stand with your arms relaxed at your sides; your ankles, hips and shoulders aligned; your shoulders relaxed; and your head neck lifting upward. Relax in this position.
Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, expanding your rib cage. As you take this slow, deep breath, maintain your spine position with its natural curves. Keeping your shoulders still, move only your rib cage.
Exhale slowly and deeply through your mouth, drawing the front of your rib cage in and down. Mobilize your abdominal muscles by pulling in the navel, drawing it up toward the rib cage and squeeze your lower abdominal muscles by pulling in the navel, drawing it up toward the rib cage as you keep your shoulders still and relaxed. "Think of flattening and lengthening the abdominal wall," says Ms. Brown. "The beauty of this and other Pilates exercises is that you can do them anywhere, anytime to relieve physical and mental stress."